There may be far more water on the moon than previously thought, according to two studies released Monday that raise the tantalizing prospect that astronauts on future space missions may find refreshment – and perhaps even fuel – on the lunar surface.
The Moon was believed to be dry until about a decade ago, when a series of discoveries suggested that our closest celestial neighbor had traces of water ice in permanently shadowed craters in its polar regions.
Two new studies published Monday in Nature Astronomy suggest that water may be even more widespread, including the first confirmation that it is also present in the sunniest areas of easier access.
If this water could be extracted, it could give astronauts traveling to the moon and beyond access to drinking water. They may even be able to split molecules to make rocket fuel.
This is of particular interest to NASA, which is planning a human mission to the moon in 2024 and wants to build a sustainable presence there by the end of the decade to prepare for the journey to Mars.
The new study was able to “unambiguously” distinguish the spectral fingerprint of molecular water in a sunlit area, said lead author Casey Honniball, of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology.
“If we find that water is abundant enough in some places, we may be able to use it as a resource for human exploration,” Honniball, who is also a postdoctoral fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center, told AFP. of NASA.
Previous research found indications of water on the sunlit surface, but these were unable to distinguish between water (H2O) and hydroxyl, a molecule composed of a hydrogen atom and an oxygen atom which is a common cleaner for drains on the Land.
Using data from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Airborne Telescope, the researchers used a more precise wavelength than that used before: 6 microns instead of 3.
They found a water concentration of around 100-400 parts per million in the Clavius crater, one of the largest visible from Earth.
“That’s roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce (350ml) bottle of water in one cubic meter of lunar soil volume,” Honniball said at a NASA news conference.
These aren’t “puddles of water,” he pointed out, but scattered molecules that don’t form ice or liquid water.
Researchers believe they come from solar winds or micro-meteorites and think they could be trapped in glass beads or inside the grains of the lunar surface to protect them from the harsh atmosphere.
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In the second study, the researchers looked at the polar regions of the moon, where ice water was detected in lunar craters that never see sunlight.
NASA in 2009 found water crystals in a deep crater near the southern pole of the moon.
But the new study found evidence of billions of micro-craters that could each rock a tiny amount of ice.
“If you were on the moon near one of the poles, you would see an entire ‘galaxy’ of tiny shadows dotted across the surface,” said lead author Paul Hayne of the University of Colorado Department of Astrophysics.
“Any of these tiny shadows – most of them smaller than a coin – would be extremely cold, and most of them cold enough to house ice.”
This “suggests that water may be much more widespread on the moon than previously thought,” Hayne said.
The authors say this could mean that some 40,000 km2 of the lunar surface has the ability to trap water.
They were able to reconstruct the size and distribution of these small craters using high-resolution images and lunar temperature measurements taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The micro-craters are expected to be as cold – about -160 degrees Celsius – as much as the largest lunar cavities, on a kilometer scale, Hayne said, adding that there are “tens of billions.”
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Deep space exploration
Samples from these cold traps could tell us more about how the Moon – and even the Earth – got its water, Hayne said, possibly providing evidence of water carried by asteroids, comets, and the solar wind.
Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist for NASA’s mission direction for human exploration and operations, said it’s critical to find out more about where the water comes from and how accessible it is.
“Water is extremely critical for deep space exploration. It is a resource of direct value to our astronauts,” he told reporters, adding that it was heavy and therefore expensive to take from Earth.
“Whenever we don’t need to pack water for our trip, we have the opportunity to take other useful items with us, such as payloads to do more science.”
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